The government is preparing to release an app which alerts people if they come too close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, Sky News can reveal.
The contact tracking app, which will operate on an opt-in basis, will be released either just before or just after the lockdown is lifted, according to several people with close knowledge of the project.
NHS bosses hope the app will attract more than 50% of the population, as large numbers of people using it together will be necessary for it to work effectively.
The existence of the app, which was first revealed by Health Service Journal, has been known some time, but key technical details have only recently been agreed by NHSX, the NHS England innovation unit leading the project.
The app will detect other phones in close vicinity using short-range Bluetooth signals, then store a record of those contacts on the device, the sources say.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they will be able to upload those contacts, who can then be alerted – after a suitable delay, to avoid accidentally identifying an individual – via the app.
This method means data is not sent regularly to a central authority, potentially easing concerns around privacy, which NHSX fears may slow adoption of the app.
NHSX plans to appoint an Ethics Board to oversee the project, with board members to be identified over the coming weeks.
However, privacy campaigners and data protection advocates questioned whether any board of this kind would be independent, and raised concerns about the app’s safeguards.
Last week, a group of “responsible technologists” published an open letter to the CEO of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care warning that “location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control”.
Sky News understands this letter was published in response to the early phase of the development of the app, which was originally intended to be used during the “containment” phase of the government’s response to the pandemic.
One source who witnessed work on the app during this period described it as a “hot mess” run by “a hodge-podge of suppliers and contractors” with “no clear voices in the room speaking to the privacy implications of the technology they were using.”
Another said: “The initial brief was to take what was going on around the world and say, ‘What is the British version of that?’ But it didn’t really feel like that was happening.”
NHSX insiders argue that this was an inevitable consequence of a team working at breakneck speed, during a period when the strategy in Downing Street was changing rapidly.
In order to reassure the privacy community, NHSX held an online meeting yesterday with a group of NGOs, including some of the signatories of the open letter.
“We could be using tech to augment and improve human processes, rather than, or as well as, creating a shiny new app,” one attendee told Sky News.
“That wasn’t something discussed on the call.”
Yet although attendees praised the unit’s openness to scrutiny, some were concerned that major questions – such as how to deal with the large numbers of over-55s without smartphones – were still not yet answered, which could hamper the effectiveness of the project.
In recent weeks, development of the app has been taken over by Pivotal, a subsidiary of American software giant VMware, which has focused on building an app that works using Bluetooth.
This is the second big American firm to be handed a significant NHS contract, after Sky News reported last week that NHSX had hired controversial Silicon Valley giant Palantir to build a “data store” in order to track the movement of critical staff and materials around the health and social care system.
Using smartphones for contact tracing has become commonplace across the world, to differing degrees of invasiveness.
The UK version follows the example set by TraceTogether, a Bluetooth-powered app used in Singapore, which has been downloaded more than 800,000 times, and helped the city-state substantially suppress its coronavirus outbreak.
The Irish government is reportedly building an app with a similar model.
By contrast, South Korea has broadcast details of infected people’s age, gender and most recent location to anyone within 100 metres via text message.
Asked about this by Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee, Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said such a system could be used to attack people, for instance on social media.
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“As a doctor, I am very against giving any patient-identifiable information, and for that reason we should also be careful, so I am not in favour of going down to street level or, ‘You are within 100 metres of coronavirus’,” Professor Whitty told the committee.
“That is the wrong approach for this country.”
Sky News revealed earlier this month that mobile network O2 was working with the government to track movement of people using anonymised smartphone location data.
Sky News understands a number of contact tracking apps are being worked on across government, but the app being built by NHSX does not use this kind of data.